A word of warning: you may find your formative memories of Rolling Stone Australia's covers are more vivid than the covers themselves.
The swirling Rolling Stone masthead is indeed iconic (though not as iconic as as that other Rolling Stones logo). And some of the photographs that have graced the magazine’s cover are the most memorable in pop music history (think of Annie Leibovitz’s portrait of John Lennon wrapped around Yoko Ono, taken just hours before his murder). But in terms of great graphic design or magazine artwork, Rolling Stone has never been all that arresting (The Face or Interview were much more innovative in that regard).
The magazine's approach to cover design has barely changed in 30 years: the masthead plus a kooky celebrity portrait. Which begs the question, why an exhibition about Rolling Stone covers? It would be easy to get behind an exhibition about the magazine's counter-culture contexts or the rock’n’roll photographers who worked for it, but an exhibition that’s only covers is a harder sell.
The magazine began in 1967 in San Francisco and the Australian edition was launched shortly after in 1972 (originally full-page negatives were flown in and the American advertisements were simply cut out and replaced with local ones).
From the beginning it was a mix of rock’n’roll and radical politics (in the late 1960s the two went hand in hand). In fact, the very notion of taking rock music seriously was itself a totally radical concept; until Rolling Stone came along, popular music mags were little more than fanzines for teeny-boppers.
You can see the magazine’s counter-culture origins clearly in the early 1970s covers. The lead articles reference sex, drugs, civil rights and censorship, and the cover images (often psychedelic illustrations rather than photographs) are a bit more experimental.
By the early 1980s, Rolling Stone had transitioned entirely from a magazine about counter-culture to a magazine about popular culture. The cover images are crisp, studio-based celebrity portraits, largely indistinguishable from many other magazines (except for a dash more nudity). Only occasionally are the photographs and subjects sufficiently strange enough to cut through (Richard Avedon’s erotic shot of Prince’s underarm hair comes to mind).
But then, inevitably, you get to the period of Rolling Stone that overlaps with your youth. Those covers, the ones you poured over, collected, shared with friends, stuck on walls. They still deliver a punch. When viewed collectively, the Rolling Stone covers are surprisingly homogenous, anything but new or radical, but they remind you of a time in your life when you were sure they were.
Rolling Stone Covers: The key players
The swirling masthead was designed by psychedelic poster artist Rick Griffin. In the late 1970s the magazine briefly opted for a cleaner sans-serif font, but it brought back 'the balls' in 1981.
Staff photographer Annie Leibovitz helped define 'the Rolling Stone look', and introduced a playful, intimate style of celebrity portraiture that's now ubiquitous.
Best known for his crisp, black and white fashion photography, Richard Avedon’s early 1980s contributions were a lot more colourful but just as racy.